One of the problems that comes with clinching a division title with 10 or 12 games left on the schedule, something that is probably going to happen to the San Diego Padres in the Nationial League West, is what to do about team sharpness. Does the manager rest his regulars and risk losing some team momemtum , or does he wear his players out physically by keeping them in his lineup?
''This is a young team, and basically young teams don't need a lot of rest,'' explained Manager Dick Williams. ''But that doesn't mean that I won't be cutting back on playing time for a lot of my regulars. Of course, if I decide to rest a veteran like Steve Garvey, who doesn't even want to miss a time at bat, I'm going to get an argument. All I can tell you is that when the playoffs arrive, we'll be ready. Actually I won't be using either Graig Nettles or Goose Gossage much once we've won our division.''
Nettles and Gossage, who were both with the New York Yankees last season, have been super pickups for the Padres. The Goose signed as a free agent, has already saved 25 games, and has an earned run average that would fit in a thimble. Nettles, whom San Diego General Manager Jack McKeon told me he has been trying to acquire for two years, is tied for the club lead in home runs and, in ratio of RBIs to times at bat, has actually upstaged players with bigger overall totals like Garvey and Kevin McReynolds.
One of the Padres' boldest and most successful moves this season was the conversion of outfielder Alan Wiggins to second base, but it wasn't really as much of a gamble as some outsiders thought at the time. For one thing, Wiggins had played the position in the minors. For another, the player himself had been thinking the same way.
''While most people simply assume that moving Wiggins into our infield was my idea, actually Alan requested the switch before we had a chance to make our intentions known to him,'' Williams said. ''Sure he made some errors early; we expected he would. But since then he's really grown into the job, and in addition, he's stolen more than 60 bases for us.''
Reading between the lines, the Padres' manager obviously thinks his team can win the National Leage playoffs and the World Series. Long season for rookie pitchers
Al Downing, the ex-Dodger left-hander who threw home run ball No. 715 to Hall of Famer Hank Aaron in Atlanta on April 8, 1974 (the one that broke Babe Ruth's record), says most fans have no idea how tough it is on rookie pitchers in September. ''I'm talking chiefly about those rookies who went into their team's starting rotations in April or May and stayed there,'' Downing told me. ''If those kids were still in the minors, they would have pitched their 140 innings, the season would be over, and they'd have gone home. Now, just a year later, they are being asked to contribute to their club's September stretch drive, which is still important even if their team isn't challenging for the pennant,'' Al continued. ''There is a pretty good chance, too, that they will end up pitching 200 innings, which is quite an increase in just one year.''
One of the few exceptions we've found this season to Downing's theory is rookie right-hander Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets, who logged 191 innings with the team's Lynchburg farm club last year. In fact, Gooden's innings pitched with the Mets this season probably will be pretty much the same as his 1983 minor league figures. Elsewhere around the majors
* The Kansas City Royals, who were 8-8 on April 25 and then didn't reach the .500 mark again until August 27, are now right up there in the thick of the stretch drive for the American League West title. Although the Royals' front-line pitching hasn't been that strong, they have gotten 39 saves from ace reliever Dan Quisen-berry, a prime candidate for Cy Young honors.
* Admittedly free agents aren't always the answer to turning a ball club around. But the Oakland A's, who picked up slugger Dave Kingman after he was released last year by the New York Mets, have already gotten more than 100 RBIs from Kingman as their designated hitter. And knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro, who was released by the Atlanta Braves, has turned into a Cy Young Award candidate with the New York Yankees. The latest rumor is that Atlanta owner Ted Turner wants to bring Niekro back to the Braves next season as their player-manager.
* If the California Angels fail to finish first in the AL West, look for Owner Gene Autry to offer manager John McNamara a new job in the club's organization. The feeling is that Autry wants another firebrand like Dick Williams in his dugout and might take a flyer on former Angels' pilot Jim Fregosi, who won a division title with the club in 1979. Meanwhile, Buzzie Bavasi has resigned as Angels' general manager (effective at the end of the season), and will be replaced by vice-president Mike Port.